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The Electro-Acoustic Sound of Andrew Renfroe

A look at the guitarist's upcoming album Run in the Storm

Andrew Renfroe (photo: Lauren Desberg)
For your eyes only: Andrew Renfroe (photo: Lauren Desberg)

“I fell in love with jazz way before I fell in love with jazz guitar,” says Andrew Renfroe. He goes on to explain that he first learned about the music from a high-school band teacher who fed him a steady diet of Lee Morgan, John Coltrane, and Wayne Shorter, explaining their concepts on piano or trumpet, leaving his student to figure out how to apply them to the guitar. 

Though Renfroe spent his teens jamming with Jamey Aebersold play-along records, normal guitar lessons didn’t ensue until he attended the Hartt School at the University of Hartford. Upon attaining a master’s from Juilliard, he hit the New York scene, forging his sound through years of playing with peers like saxophonist Braxton Cook, keyboard player Taber Gable, and drummer Curtis Nowosad, all of whom appear on his upcoming album Run in the Storm. 

That sound differs from the headiness of other New York-based jazz guitarists, instead recalling the more earthy, vocal approach of legendary R&B players like Eric Gale and Cornell Dupree, while his compositions meld the straight-ahead drive of Bobby Broom with the harmonic modality of John Coltrane. “It’s a combination of a rootsy attack and time feel, combined with transcribing Coltrane to learn his phrasing and harmony,” Renfroe says.

Still, Kurt Rosenwinkel’s influence is almost inescapable for guitar players of a certain generation. In Renfroe’s case it comes in the guise of the electronic sounds that pop up on the album, influenced by Rosenwinkel’s electronica-based Heartcore. “That’s my favorite record of his,” Renfroe explains. “All the tunes on my record began as demos in Ableton Live. Ideas started with electric drums and weird keyboard pads, so it didn’t make sense for the band to take a straight-ahead approach. When something starts in Ableton or Logic, some of the sounds become part of the song itself.”

Despite the programmed origin of the compositions, Run in the Storm presents more as a live outing with electronic accents. Said accents include Nowosad’s occasional triggered sample interjections, as well as Renfroe’s use of the Electro-Harmonix Freeze pedal, which creates a short loop of a note or chord, often indistinguishable from a keyboard pad. “I always have it under my right foot and play it like a piano sustain pedal on downbeats, or whenever the harmony changes,” he says. “Lately, I’m trying to find moments where I can work it into single-line playing as well.”

Effects aside, Renfroe’s unique timbre begins with his instruments. Veering away from the custom and vintage guitars favored by his influences, he wields Ibanez archtop models from the company’s budget Artcore line. Though more expensive instruments vibrate better, he found those vibrations problematic at higher performance volumes. A single pickup in the neck position helps account for the richness of his tone, as does his usage of super-heavy strings. The forward transients come from elsewhere. “I have a little lavalier mic inside the [guitar] body and blend that in at the mixing board,” he reveals. “We all hear the sound of the pick hitting the strings when we practice; why wouldn’t you want that to come across at any volume?” The result is a tone that often harks back to the liquid distorted lines of the ’70s, courtesy of a Voodoo Labs Sparkle Drive, with the added attack of the mic providing some modern aggression. 

On Run in the Storm tunes like “1998,” “Borrowed Time,” and “Dula,” Renfroe’s gritty guitar and Braxton Cook’s smooth sax often blend into a single lyrical voice. “We have a lot of common influences,” he says. “Braxton makes a melody sing.” The same could be said for Andrew Renfroe. 

Michael Ross

Michael Ross is a writer/musician/producer living in Nashville. He is a Consulting Editor at Guitar Player, a contributor to Premier Guitar and Electronic Musician, and the author of numerous books about guitar sound. He also curates guitarmoderne.com, dedicated to avant-garde guitar, and cohosts the Modern Guitar web radio show.